It all began with a conversation about Colm Tóibín’s novella/play – The Testament of Mary – about Mary after the death of her son (see posts here and here). The Testament of Mary involves a reconsideration of the traditional theological interpretation of what the Bible and the Church has made of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
We decided that non-conformist churches should be comfortable with the sort of radical re-interpretation of scripture because of their bias toward non-conformity. After all non-conformity traces its origins back to the Reformation which opened the way for a different approach to the contents of scripture. And, while a r/Reformation – of any sort – may be erratic, in the end it must be comprehensive. It must touch all possible elements of what is being reformed.
In fact, however, that does not seem to have been the case when the Reformers considered the nature and work of Christ, the existence of God, and the treatment of the Bible. This only began to happen in the Enlightenment of the 1700s. In a time of great turmoil, the Enlightenment involved a move away from acceptance of the authority of the Church to speak on all things Christian. And it was not long until anything biblical was being questioned – from the story of Genesis to the veracity of the Resurrection and so on.
Was the non-conformist tradition a forerunner of this movement?
Certainly by the late 1800s a non-conformist liberal tradition had begun. A tradition that was not frightened by the Enlightenment. A tradition that enabled and facilitated non-conformist theologians’ (or at least some of them) leap into the sea of doubt with thanksgiving. A tradition which sought a deeper – and went further into a – relationship with Enlightenment values of objective search and non-dogmatic pre-suppositions.
And yet while this tradition found a place in the University theology departments and teaching – eventually mutating into various forms of religious studies – it did not, at least until recently, get far among the churches.
From non-conformity to ‘progressive Christianity’?
For some, the non-conformist tradition is a having a mini revival at present in what is called ‘progressive Christianity’ (see further here). I wonder whether this might arrest the decline of non-conformist churches. Perhaps it might even send up fragile new shoots of non-conformist thinking that will shape the future way of being church.